Grand Strand farmers market program keeps growing

Produce on display at the Farmers Market on Deville Street in The Market Common.
Produce on display at the Farmers Market on Deville Street in The Market Common. For The Sun News

Even with the heat index hitting triple digits, sweat-glistened customers still wandered among the white tents lining Deville Street.

The search for the perfect watermelon, wildflower honey or handmade soap doesn’t stop just because of miserable weather.

“Everybody loves that fresh and local,” said Reavin Graham, who manned the Graham’s Produce and Small Farms stand at The Market Common recently. “Got to have fresh and local produce.”

The local obsession with farmers markets has led to the recent expansion of the Waccamaw Market Cooperative from four markets to seven. The nonprofit, which manages markets from North Myrtle Beach to Georgetown, is also hiring a director to oversee the growing operation.

“Once we can get a director on board, we can focus on this all the time,” said Blake Lanford, an agent with Clemson Extension Service who assists the cooperative. “It can really go to the next level.”

Earlier this year, Lanford applied for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to help pay for the director’s salary as well as fund a truck for deliveries. He also hopes to create an online market where people can order farm-fresh food and have it dropped off at specific locations.

Lanford doesn’t know if the money will arrive, but he’s not worried.

“If the grant comes through, great,” he said. “But if it doesn’t come through, no sweat. We’re trudging forward with this thing.”

The reason the nonprofit can hire someone and pursue those projects is because of all the additional markets coming on line. Last year, the cooperative set up one in Carolina Forest. This spring, the group added destinations in Pawleys Island, Georgetown and The Market Common to the mix.

Pawleys Island has hosted other farmers markets in years past, but the visibility and accessibility weren’t great, said Chuck Cooper, one of the property owners who helped set up the new Pawleys Island market. This one, located off U.S. 17, has been bustling.

“People love it,” Cooper said. “People wanted a farmers market here.”

The Deville Street market was originally part of the cooperative, but later switched to other management before coming back to the Waccamaw fold this year.

So far, vendors say they’re happy with the program, especially the cooperative’s emphasis on producer food rather than wholesale.

“They’ve made it kind of for only farmers now, which is a lot better,” said Priscilla Munoz of M&M Farms in Sumter County.

Munoz said her family makes weekly trips to markets in The Market Common, Georgetown and Surfside Beach because the Grand Strand crowds are better than those closer to home.

“It’s a lot more people,” she said.

Along with the new locations, cooperative leaders are working on plans for a mega farmers market in downtown Conway. City officials have budgeted $250,000 for an open-air pavilion and park on the corner of Laurel Street and Second Avenue. An old police station was recently razed to make room for the new facility.

“They have a vision,” Lanford said of Conway leaders. “They’re putting their money where their vision is ... and they’re making stuff happen. And they’re not waiting around on anybody to come in and do it for them.”

The nonprofit is taking a similar approach. The cooperative has more than doubled the number of vendors it started with in 2008 and continues to find community support for its projects.

And that support comes from many different sources.

“You’ve got more interest in healthy ways and healthy activities and health issues in general,” Lanford said. “It really depends on who you ask. Some of the folks out there will tell you, yeah, they’re hardcore. They care about local. They’ll only buy local. Some of the folks, they want a deal. Some folks think it’s fresher. It’s just all over the place.”

Contact CHARLES D. PERRY at 626-0218 or on Twitter @TSN_CharlesPerr.